BUFF Review: Starry Eyes


Starry Eyes (dirs. Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer)

Filmmakers have strong history of turning the cameras back onto filmmaking.  And who can blame them?  They know that film is a shared interest with their captive audience, and it must be satisfying to write what you know.  STARRY EYES is a horror film, about the horror of an actress trying to get a part in a film, which is about making a horror film. Though these layers do not confuse, it goes to show the extent to which filmmakers love navel gazing. After briefly acknowledging the inherent narcissism here, I will tell you that STARRY EYES is dark film that successfully convinces me to never move to Hollywood.

Sarah is a pretty but floundering young actress who cannot seem to catch a break.  She goes through all of the motions of someone who should be discovered at any moment.  She has a demeaning waitressing job at a Hooters knock-off which requires both skimpy clothing and singing to birthday guests.  She dutifully takes acting classes and goes to open auditions.  All of that, and she still has to deal with her group of slacker millennial friends, one in particular who is more of a frienemy than supportive. Sarah is at the brink of cracking from the stress, though her trichotillomania (ripping her hair out) keeps her as balanced as possible. When she gets called in for an audition for a slasher called “The Silver Scream” she sets out to do whatever it takes to get that part.  The casting director would have fit in well at Patrick Bateman’s lunch table and Sarah can barely contain her stench of desperation- it all goes downhill from here.
One of STARRY EYES’s strongest elements is that of unpredictability.  The plot meanders in a direction that keeps you guessing and intrigued, which is why I will stop the synopsis there.  You can imagine that the audition process for “The Silver Scream” is anything but ordinary.  I did not imagine that it would unravel the way it did or that Sarah would evolve the way she did.
At its heart Starry Eyes is a story with two aspects: Old vs. New Hollywood and Sarah’s evolution.
Hollywood and its basic systems of operation have been undergoing a quiet revolution.  Though getting discovered in a Starbucks or getting confronted with a casting couch must still occur, beginning actors and filmmakers now have much more agency in getting their careers rolling. Inexpensive digital film production and crowdsourcing through Indiegogo or Kickstarter (and it must not be a coincidence that Starry Eyes was Kickstarter financed) mean that if you want to make a movie you can do it without permission or acceptance from the studios.  Sarah is clearly expecting to make her name as an actress in the old way.  And though that still exists, she looks down at her friends for embracing the new way of getting films made.  How could she work beneath her station and act in her buddy Danny’s film?  That is not supposed to be the way she makes it. She needs to work for it and struggle for it be real.
Sarah’s transformation in the film is as extreme as it is convincing.  Alex Essoe’s performance as Sarah blew me away.  Initially she seemed a bit wooden and reserved, but as Sarah confronts decision after decision and becomes a wildly different person, you realize that it was Sarah who was withdrawn and not Essoe.  The tragedy in Sarah’s complete change is that she thinks she is becoming the person she wants to be.  There is a small chance that she always was this monster but never let her friends or the audience see this.  But to see a woman go from self-loathing with an anxiety disorder to her final form in 90 minutes makes that argument a little unbelievable to me.  She becomes the woman she thinks she wants to be, and does so with horrifying results.
The film’s score, cinematography, and supporting performances give it a nuanced feel that is clearly very stylized and intentional.  This world is a glimpse into Hollywood today for those who are outsiders themselves.  And the frequent mentions of the millennial generation in the film highlight that the clash of old and new is not an accident.  The characters also have very real and complicated relationships.  Nothing is one-dimensional which adds to the feeling of immersion in their world.  
STARRY EYES has moments that are both emotionally and viscerally difficult to watch and I look forward to seeing it again.

Deirdre Crimmins

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Deirdre (Dede) lives in Cleveland (via Boston) with two black cats. She writes for Film Thrills, Cinematic Essential, The Brattle Theater, Rue Morgue Magazine, Bitch Flicks, and anyone else who will let her drone on about genre film. She wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero and is always hopeful that Hollywood will get its head out of its ass.

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